Whilst I’ve been otherwise busy this week and haven’t posted, I’ve been watching the unedifying spectacle of the recruitment of former NSW Premier Bob Carr as Foreign Minister. And if anyone thinks Julia Gillard has gained anything from it, they should think again.
One might have thought this week would be a good one for Gillard, relatively speaking; instead, she heads into the new week with egg on her face, and with the questions of the past few months surrounding her authority undimmed.
Notwithstanding the fact I have said that Gillard’s thumping win in the ALP leadership was not an emphatic endorsement of her, but an emphatic rejection of Kevin Rudd, I have to be fair and say — initially, at least — her idea to draft Bob Carr as foreign minister had some merit.
And let’s look at Bob Carr.
He ran a lacklustre ALP state government in NSW for ten years; it was the gift firstly of an unexpectedly close state election result in 1991 that left the then Greiner government dependent on Tony Windsor for support, and secondly of another close election in 1995 that delivered Labor a one-seat majority despite losing both the primary and two-party vote count across the state.
Carr was the inept leader of an inept government; indeed, on one occasion he described the position of Premier of New South Wales (or “New South Wiles,” as he pronounces it) as “an inherently stupid job.”
Yet he became the longest continuously serving Premier of NSW to date, in part by virtue of the fear campaign ratcheted up over the then Howard government’s pending introduction of a GST, and in part by virtue of the infighting that erupted within the NSW Liberal Party shortly after its loss of office in 1995.
There is considerable argument — which I do not intend to canvass tonight — which lends credence to the idea that NSW stagnated under the Carr government, and that many of the problems now faced by the O’Farrell government were continuously kicked down the road by Carr and his Labor successors.
It is, however, indisputable that much of the turmoil and chaos now evident in the federal ALP had its genesis in the NSW Party and the dubious methods employed by its Sussex Street headquarters in running, and misdirecting, their organisation.
On the other hand, Carr comes with some qualifications for the role of Foreign Minister: a studious, erudite and academic man, it is the realm of world affairs that is both Carr’s passion and the area in which he is most qualified in the formal sense. He does bring a dim shimmer of class to a federal government so lacking in that commodity, and so deficient in terms of political polish and professional political presentation.
So with that in mind, it comes as some small surprise that having actually generated a tiny modicum of momentum this week, Julia Gillard and her colleagues have spent the ensuing five days assiduously squandering it, and validating every question mark that ever existed over their judgement, conduct, and suitability to hold office.
The handling of the offer of Mark Arbib’s vacant Senate seat to Bob Carr and with it, the Foreign ministry — and the fact such machinations were even underway at all being made public — are an indictment on the shambolic way in which the Labor Party operates these days, but typical of its ham-fisted approach to government.
Gillard’s denial that she had spoken to Carr about the proposed role was disingenuous; not least given Carr himself directly contradicted her one day later.
But it is telling that her denial — made outside Parliament, and subsequently publicly rescinded following the intervention of Carr — was one she refused to repeat in Parliament.
The risk of knowingly misleading Parliament under privilege is a dangerous risk indeed, as Gillard well knows — and one fraught with potentially fatal political repercussions.
And all of this neatly refocuses attention on the Prime Minister’s great weaknesses: that she is perceived as dishonest, or at best economical with the truth; manipulative, deceptive, and far less than trustworthy.
And this has been compounded with the leaks that were allowed to find their way into the press — namely, that ministerial colleagues (Stephen Smith and Simon Crean were named in papers across the country this week as having “blocked” Gillard’s attempt to recruit Carr) — feed further into the lack of legitimacy, the lack of credibility and the lack of authority the Prime Minister is widely regarded to have.
Of course, Gillard prevailed in the end, but only after a public circus that has inflicted far more damage on herself and on the government than will be outweighed by any positives from the recruitment of Bob Carr.
And speaking of Gillard’s reshuffle generally, she has done herself no favours here, either.
All the talk of “unity” and “healing” has been laid bare by the sheer vindictiveness with which the reshuffle was conducted.
Having contemplated sacking all five of the ministers who publicly supported Kevin Rudd in the leadership ballot, Gillard relented. Four of the five could stay.
And we know all of this because it was leaked.
In a sense, she had little choice; for example, Albanese is the government’s best option for his role as Leader of the House, and she would dismiss a senior heavyweight backed by union muscle like Martin Ferguson at her peril.
Yet it may have been cleaner (in every sense) to sack all five; the fact the process followed in undertaking the reshuffle has been made so visible underscores the general perception the government faces of being a credibility-free, dishonest and amoral outfit.
And to single out Robert McClelland for the sack — on the specious pretext that he was more “activist” in his support of Rudd than the other four — is an odious little exercise in victimisation, and a half-arsed yet ominous warning to other potential detractors to boot.
So Gillard began the week with a solid, if shallowly grounded, win in the ALP leadership contest, and ends it with the Foreign minister she wanted, the reshuffle she broadly sought, and yet what little credibility or authority she may have had left kicked to pieces as a result of the sheer incompetence with which the whole charade was executed.
I have already foreshadowed the leadership ballot resolving nothing; I hadn’t expected evidence of that contention to materialise so quickly or so sharply.
Yet this has been the first week of the next 17 months, and — if the ALP’s antics this week are any indication — it’s going to be a long, long wait for the election, if it occurs as scheduled next August.
The more things change, the more they stay the same…